New Towns in Medieval France and Nature of Institutions
Marie-Christine Thaize Challier
Review of European Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1; June (2011)
Urban development was a key phenomenon in medieval Western Europe. This paper focuses on the relationship between the institutions and the new towns set up in France at that time. It interprets the institutional evolution on the basis of the actions of communities’ founders (kings or overlords) and dwellers to govern the transition through urban constitutions furthering civil, economic, administrative, and political laws. It highlights institutions by which the royal government acquired territory and increased its influence at the expense of feudal lords. It shows that some formal and informal institutions prevailed at a local level to provide the incentive structure to further the urban growth during the High Middle Ages whereas other formal and informal institutions predominated at the national (royal) level when the urban movement declined during the Late Middle Ages.
Medieval Southwestern Europe saw an outstanding urban expansion between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries and then a decline of the creation of new towns from the fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth century. The study of these two urban trends has been the subject of a great deal of research. However less is known about the institutions that shaped them. (Note 1) The present paper aims to contribute to the understanding of these two urban movements by drawing on the example of medieval France through both historical records and the analysis of institutions. Given the informational impediments (or transaction costs) of the real world, the formal institutions (for instance, local constitutions, statutes, laws, individual contracts, and property rights) are incomplete rules. As a result, informal institutions (for instance, conventions, ethical rules, cooperative behaviours, collective action, social capital, norms and networks) supplement the formal ones. The paper shows that the urban growth of the High Middle Ages was related to specific formal and informal institutions prevailing at the local level (seigneuries or royal private domain) whereas the collapse of the urban expansion in the Late Middle Age was associated with other formal and informal institutions acting at the national level (kingdom).